A young faculty member at IIT-Kanpur found himself accused of plagiarism after four senior professors were held guilty of harassing him and perpetrating caste-based discrimination against him.
Last week, an expert committee cleared him of the plagiarism charges. Will it finally put an end to the series of taunts and humiliations he has been subjected to?
Last year, a senior professor at the Indian Institute of Technology-Kanpur (IIT-K) sent out a mass email with the subject “The Ten Year Curse Strikes Again”.
The author of the email, Rajiv Shekhar, was a professor in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering at IIT-K at that time and is currently the director of Indian School of Mines - Dhanbad.
The email had landed in the inboxes of all senators (the Senate is IIT-K's highest academic body comprising about half of the total 400-odd faculty members). It questioned the fairness in the recent recruitment of a young faculty member, calling the candidate’s academic performance as “uninspiring” and stating that he had “slipped under the radar”.
The opening lines of the email read:
“Every ten years an incident occurs which shakes the foundation of academics at IITK. The curse has struck again!”
It was soon deduced that the new faculty member in question was Subrahmanyam Saderla. The 31-year-old had joined IIT-K on 1 January 2018 — exactly a month before the email was circulated — as an assistant professor in the Department of Aerospace Engineering. Saderla had completed his MTech and PhD from IIT-K itself.
The story of why Shekhar questioned Saderla’s candidature is a long one and can be read here. For now, it suffices to say that Saderla’s recruitment did not go down well with some professors.
What followed was a series of public humiliations and taunts that gradually progressed to career-threatening accusations of plagiarism and under-performance as a faculty member.
Part of the reason for this harassment was caste bias. No, this is not an ‘opinion’ but the conclusion of at least three separate inquiry committees. Apart from Shekhar, those held guilty of harassment are C S Upadhyay, Ishan Sharma, and Sanjay Mittal.
Saderla belongs to a scheduled caste. He was recruited at IIT-K under a special drive for reserved sections (SC/ST/OBC/PwD).
Last week, an expert committee cleared Saderla of the plagiarism charges and found no lapses in his recruitment.
Wait, what must it feel to be called a curse?
When asked, Saderla chose not to comment on it. But he did express himself in an email marked to all the IIT-K faculty members earlier this year. It was titled, ‘One year of curse’ and read thus:
We have grown up hearing the stories from our parents that there was a time when people were labelled as “CURSE” on every occasion of an unsought encounter. But never understood the exact crux of that act in spite of our parents being direct victims of such hostile experiences…
Saderla’s wife Sravanthi Satuluri, who has actively supported him throughout the crisis, told this correspondent that it took the couple several months to get over the jibe.
“I wanted to tell the author of the email, you don’t know us, you don’t know our roots, the place where we come from, the upbringing we had but you casually throw this jibe at us — that we are a curse. What are we supposed to make of it? That our parents are a curse? That our community is a curse? That our culture is a curse?” she said.
Satuluri, who too belongs to a scheduled caste and is also an IIT-K alumnus, is not sure if she has gotten over it completely. She hopes her two daughters never come to know about it.
Her own personal journey has been all about breaking barriers including that of caste. Satuluri says she is the first woman in her clan to “cross three districts for an education”.
“My family is traditionally into making jute sacks and thatched roofs. No one in my grandparents’ generation was even literate,” she says.
Satuluri did her BTech from a college in Vishakhapatnam. She had landed a job when a friend suggested that she write her GATE (Graduate Aptitude Test in Engineering) examination. The friend later suggested that she should apply at the IITs.
“You can imagine my joy when I made it here [for MTech],” she says. “I was thrilled that I could set an example and uplift an entire generation of my family. Indeed, many parents were encouraged to send their children, particularly daughters, to distant places for education.”
“Do they realise that when they put us down, they put an entire clan, an entire village and an entire community down?” she says.
Like Satuluri, Saderla too comes from a lower-middle class background.
In the last one-and-a-half years, the couple has seen much turmoil in their lives.
In the months preceding the email, Saderla was repeatedly publicly shamed and embarrassed by some of his seniors.
It began during the recruitment process itself. As per a written complaint by Saderla last year, Ishan Sharma from the Mechanical Engineering Department ridiculed him during his seminar at IIT-K in October 2017, which is not par for the course at the IITs.
A fact-finding committee said Sharma’s conduct showed “he had ill-feelings against the special drive for recruitment and in particular against Saderla”. Subsequently, a one-man judicial committee pointed out that Sharma never submitted any complaint against Saderla’s candidature which suggested his ridiculing was only to make Saderla a laughing stock.
Within days of Saderla’s joining as a faculty member, some seniors including Sanjay Mittal passed sarcastic comments that “a new faculty had brought down the academic standards of the institute”.
Mittal and Upadhyay sent out emails to other faculty members questioning Saderla’s credentials and held closed-door faculty meetings in his absence, which Saderla later learned was to discuss lapses in his appointment and to convince others that he was “mentally unfit” for the job.
The fact-finding committee found that Upadhyay even tried to “mislead” the board of governors (BoG) into reviewing Saderla’s appointment by degrading his academic performance. The committee called it a “serious charge”.
Saderla was compelled to take up these matters with his department head A K Ghosh and later with the top management.
The initial letters by Saderla and Satuluri to the institute director reveal their pain at the unpleasant events.
“I haven't done any mistake during the entire process and why should I be under scanner for the senior faculty members in the department (sic),” wrote Saderla in a 12 January email.
This is what Satuluri wrote to the director on 19 January:
“…To my knowledge, any objection regarding the candidature profile need to be resolved before the candidate has been accepted into the institute. But it is unfortunate that all such proceedings are happening now and I strongly believe that it is not a good sign for a person who is at the budding stage of his career...
It clearly shows the discrimination and harassment faced by my husband causing him immense mental pressure which may eventually affect his performance. We come from a lower middle class background and are second generation literates wanting to pave the path for our fellow and future generations by being an iconic example…
Saderla had no idea why he was being treated thus, and kept on asking, “Why me? Why only me?”
Satuluri recalls how it affected their personal life.
At the time of Saderla’s joining, she was in her native state Andhra Pradesh tending to her 10-day-old baby. Within two days, they knew things were not alright.
Saderla had been asked to resubmit his academic documents. “It was strange. Everything had already been checked earlier,” she says.
Her husband was now calling her on the phone every day, not to share his excitement about his new role but to tell her that he dreaded going for his classes. He did not feel welcome; in fact, he felt unwanted.
A bubble had burst.
Typically, life as a faculty is considered less stressful and more rewarding than as a student. For them, it was turning out to be the opposite.
Saderla had just crossed a milestone, from a student to a faculty and was excited about the “new chapter of our lives”, but the joy had proved to be short-lived.
“The year 2017 had been quite eventful for us. I finished my PhD and also delivered my second baby. He landed a job at his alma mater. It seemed like everything was beautifully falling in place, but we were wrong,” she says.
After their complaints, the institute's then officiating director, professor Manindra Agarwal, set up a fact-finding committee towards the end of January.
Until then, the vilification of Saderla was limited to the corridors of the Aerospace Department. The “curse” email on 1 February, however, turned the couple into a subject of ridicule and hostility across the campus.
By then, Satuluri had shifted from Andhra to the IIT-K campus. That wasn’t as per their initial plan; with a month-old-baby, she had wanted to stay with her parent’s family for longer, but she had to be by her husband’s side.
“He was devastated by that email. All the faculty came to know about it. It soon reached students as well.”
“But you know what hurt us the most? That absolutely no faculty objected to use of the term ‘curse’,” she says.
“Even if we assume that it’s because they did not want to state their objection openly in an email, no one called us up or approached us in person to tell us that we were not a curse.”
Things came to such a pass that it became difficult for the couple to face their neighbours, who were also faculty members.
“I would be confined to my room all day and would come out only after 9 pm, to take a stroll with my baby,” she says.
“It was like I had been thrown into a dark room. My husband was facing far worse, as he was functioning amid people who were hostile to him.”
Saderla says Manindra Agarwal and A K Ghosh were among the few seniors who stood by them.
In the following months, the matter reached the National Scheduled Castes Commission and subsequently the Allahabad High Court. By April, the matter was all over the media. It was in the newspapers and on television.
The couple did everything to hide it from their elder daughter, who is five.
Even though three inquiry committees vindicated their claims of harassment, hostility towards them only grew. In WhatsApp chats and in discussions, they were accused of using their caste to play victim and ruin the lives of four eminent professors.
In October, the institute’s top management body — the BoG — was to decide punitive punishment for the four professors. A day before the meeting, an anonymous email from a Gmail ID accused Saderla of plagiarism in his PhD thesis.
The ID was deactivated promptly after the email, making many wonder if it was created only for the purpose. In an unprecedented move, the director accepted the anonymous complaint.
Satuluri recalls it as a full-blown attack on their dignity.
A distraught Saderla was compelled to approach the police. Days later, he filed a first information report (FIR) against the four professors under Section 500 (defamation), Section 66D (cheating by personation using computer) of the Information Technology Act, and the SC/ST Act. His complaint said the anonymous email was motivated and an attempt to influence the BoG decision on their punishment.
The FIR caused a sensation at the campus. A group, comprising mainly of spouses of senior professors, staged a protest against Saderla.
Satuluri recalls it as the “worst day” of an already stressful year.
“We were literally being told through placards and slogans that we were hated.”
“Right from day one, we were viewed with suspicion and made to feel we do not belong here. But that was the moment when the myth of ‘IIT-K is a community’ was completely broken.”
“We always saw this campus as a temple and considered our seniors to be demi-gods. We were in for a rude shock,” she says.
Was the plagiarism complaint indeed motivated? Was it vendetta against Saderla for speaking up? Most likely, yes.
Here’s how the plagiarism complaint was handled: the director ordered the institute’s ethics cell to probe the accusations. The cell did not find any plagiarism in Saderla’s thesis. In a yet unexplained move, a Senate meeting decided to revoke Saderla’s PhD anyway.
The BoG, that was by now under huge pressure from activists, media and the IIT-K alumni who supported Saderla, did not accept the Senate decision. In April this year, the director constituted a committee of technical experts from outside IIT-K to investigate the alleged plagiarism.
It was only last week that the committee’s report was made public. It did not find any plagiarism in Saderla’s PhD thesis. The BoG decided his PhD will not be revoked.
Is Saderla satisfied?
When asked, he chose not to comment more than that he was relieved and could finally focus on his work.
Satuluri continues to be skeptical.
“I want to know, are we done here or are there any more accusations to follow, more tests to pass and more points for us to prove?”
“We are tired,” she says.
Plagiarism, though the most serious, is not the only accusation that Saderla has braved. Last year, some students complained to the director that Saderla had not covered the full syllabus in a particular course. It was about the same time when a decision on the confirmation of Saderla’s appointment was to be taken.
The charge proved to be frivolous as a probe by a senior faculty member of the aerospace department concluded that Saderla had not only covered the curriculum but also offered additional classes. The probe said the complaint appeared motivated and orchestrated by some faculty members.
Satuluri says that some months ago, one of her seniors informed her that her own PhD thesis was passed through plagiarism software.
“They have been dumping filth on us and we have been cleaning it, proving ourselves every time. Why don’t they check the thesis of all the faculty and alumni? Why only us?” she asks.
She is worried that misconceptions related to her husband’s case linger on.
“Many people are under the impression that he complained of caste discrimination after he was caught plagiarizing. It’s the other way around. He was accused of plagiarism after his complaints of harassment and caste discrimination were found to be true,” she says.
Saderla, on the other hand, has a different concern. “It looks like my caste has been permanently affixed to my name.”
“If I go on to become a good researcher, will I be called a good researcher in my own right or just a Dalit who managed to do research? I really don’t know,” he says.
That apart, the experience has made him sensitive to caste issues at educational campuses. “I have received, and continue to receive, a lot of letters and emails from students who tell horrible tales of caste discrimination. I hope I can do something to address it.”
Nothing perhaps sums up Saderla’s feelings better than how he concluded his email titled ‘One year of curse’.
It ends with a couplet from the Gita, followed by a resolve:
“No matter what, I will stand for the dignity of all my fellow CURSED brothers and sisters of this nation.”